It is easy to get confused about what is a bad cold (which is often wrongly referred to as flu) and what could be real influenza.
What is a cold?
Colds are a frequent but minor problem. They are caused by many different bugs, so you can get more than 1 cold over a season. Although the common cold will make you feel slightly unwell it will rarely prevent you getting about.
The illness emerges over a few hours or a day with symptoms including:
- sore throat
- runny nose
- runny eyes
- a cough
It is unlikely that you would have a fever.
What should you do if you get a cold?
If you have these symptoms and your temperature is less than 38°C it is likely that you are suffering from a simple cold and you do not really need to visit your GP or seek medical help.
We recommend that you:
- stay at home and rest
- take medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen or paracetamol to relieve the symptoms (following the instruction with the medicines). Throat lozenges and decongestants can also be very helpful
- drink at least 2 litres of fluids per day to speed your recovery
Note: Children under 16 must not be given aspirin or ready-made flu remedies containing aspirin.
It is helpful if people do not visit their doctor or the hospital unless they really need to do so. This will help reduce the risk of spreading the cold to others and will avoid taking up unnecessary medical time, which could delay treatment for others.
What is influenza?
Influenza is a disease caused by a family of viruses which have the ability to change. Some of these viruses can affect both humans and animals.
3 very different types of influenza are discussed below:
- seasonal flu
- avian flu
- pandemic flu
Although caused by the same family of virus, the threat and implications of these different types of flu are quite different to one another. They must not be confused with each other.
What is seasonal flu?
The usual seasonal influenza virus changes slightly from winter to winter and only 1 or 2 usually circulate in any season. People only tend to get flu once a year, if at all.
It is important that flu is diagnosed accurately to ensure the best care and treatment of the patient.
After exposure to the virus it can take between 1 and 4 days for symptoms to develop. When it starts you will get a sudden temperature of at least 38°C, almost always with a headache and a cough, and you will feel generally quite unwell.
If you think you may have a temperature, we suggest you check using a conventional or a strip thermometer.
The sudden onset of these symptoms with a temperature indicates flu, and helps prevent confusion with minor colds or chest infections.
For those people with chronic lung disease, you will notice your normal cough worsening.
Who should have the seasonal flu vaccine?
People in Jersey with medical conditions that put them at risk from seasonal flu (influenza) should contact their GP surgery and arrange to be vaccinated against the virus.
Flu is more likely to cause serious respiratory infections in those at risk. These include:
- pregnant women
- people aged 65 or over
And those with the following conditions:
- heart problems, liver or kidney disease
- chest complaints or breathing difficulties including bronchitis or emphysema
- people with diabetes who are on medication
- lowered immunity either due to disease or treatment (such as steroid medication or cancer treatment)
- people who have had strokes or have a neurological condition such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy
- people who have a problem with their spleen or who have had it removed
What should you do if you get influenza?
If you do have a temperature of 38°C or more, you could have flu and you may wish to seek medical help.
This would be particularly important if:
- you feel very unwell or
- you normally have an annual flu vaccination, because you are 65 or over or have an underlying condition such as lung, heart, liver or kidney disease or diabetes
It is also important to seek help if you develop a further complication such as:
- shortness of breath when resting or doing very little
- painful or difficult breathing
- coughing up bloody mucus or phlegm
- fever for 4 - 5 days which does not get better (or gets worse)
- starting to feel better then developing high fever and feeling unwell again
- drowsiness, disorientation or confusion
What is avian flu?
Avian flu (or bird flu as it commonly known) is a type of flu that mainly affects wild and domestic birds.
There are many different types of avian flu. Currently this includes a form (caused by the H5N1 virus) that is serious in poultry, although it causes less of a problem in ducks and other birds. This has been reported in many parts of the world including Europe.
The H5N1 virus has spread to humans and caused serious illness in a small number of people who have had close contact with infected birds. No human cases have occurred in the UK and there is only a small risk of catching avian flu if you travel to an area where infected poultry have been reported.
Even if you come into close contact with infected birds, dead or alive, the risk of catching bird flu remains extremely low although precautions should always be taken.
So far, there is no confirmed evidence of sustained spread of the avian flu virus from one person to another. This means that it has not adapted well to infecting humans despite being present for some years.
Whether it can ever develop the ability of spreading easily from person to person and therefore potentially causing a pandemic is unclear.
Plans are in hand to reduce the risk of avian flu affecting Jersey. Procedures have been drawn up to deal with infected birds and any humans who may have been in contact with them.
What is pandemic flu?
This type of influenza has a completely different effect. It is caused by the emergence of a new flu virus which is markedly different from recently circulating strains.
It has the ability to spread rapidly from person to person and to cause disease. Being a new virus it affects a large number of people around the world - hence the term pandemic. This occurs every 10 to 40 years.
Pandemics of influenza have occurred sporadically throughout history – 3 times in the last hundred years, resulting in many deaths. Experts predict another pandemic will occur but cannot say exactly when it will happen.
Pandemic flu is more serious than ‘ordinary’ flu because people would not have any resistance to it and because it would affect a large proportion of the population. It is likely to cause the same symptoms as ‘ordinary’ flu but the symptoms may be more severe due to this lack of resistance.
Who’s at risk?
Once a pandemic of influenza starts, everybody will be at risk of catching it.
Download coping with pandemic flu leaflet (size 145kb)
Is there a treatment to protect against pandemic flu?
Medicines called antivirals can be used to treat influenza. They have been shown to be helpful in the treatment of ‘ordinary’ flu, and it is likely that they will also be effective in the treatment of pandemic flu, but their effectiveness won’t be known until the pandemic virus is circulating.
These antivirals will subdue the symptoms and reduce the time that people are sick for, if given within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
‘Ordinary’ flu vaccines will not protect against pandemic flu, but ‘ordinary’ flu can be serious so it is very important that everyone who is due an ‘ordinary’ flu jab has one.
Once the pandemic has started and the new virus has been identified, a vaccine can be developed.